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Shakespeare Play a 'Freeing' Experience for San Quentin Inmates

Inmates and guests give thumbs up to Friday performance at the Prison set up by Marin Shakespeare Co.

Laughter filled an auditorium in San Quentin State Prison on Friday afternoon as 13  a musical version of Shakespeare's comedy "Twelfth Night" for a crowded room of staff, guests and fellow prisoners.

First-time actor Perry "Spike" Simpson said he had butterflies in his stomach but was hiding it well. On the outside, "I'm like Denzel," he said. "But inside I'm going crazy."

Marin Shakespeare Company director Suraya Keating called the cast together for a pre-show pep talk and did her best to ease the actors' nerves.

The cast used a script adapted by Robert Currier, the company's managing director, and Lesley Currier, the managing director and performer in Friday's show.

The Curriers' version keeps the original language but has been modernized to take place in the 1960s. The performance was liberally interspersed with song-and-dance numbers with music from classic bands including Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones.

From the first lip-synched number — when a group of men burst into a choreographed dance to Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops" — the crowd was hooked and audience members cheered and called out encouragement.

Keating, Lesley Currier and several interns worked with the inmates once a week for two hours a day over the past 10 months to bring Shakespeare to life.

The San Rafael-based theater company began the program at San Quentin eight years ago and the cast Friday was a mix of first-timers and veterans.

Joey Barnes said he was excited for his first stage appearance and his family was as well, even though they could not be at the one-show-only performance. Barnes said he told his mother to watch for clips of him on the news. "And my daughter — she's all jazzed," he said.

Mike Anthony is a seasoned veteran of the program but said this character was by far the most difficult. Anthony donned a dress and wig this afternoon to play the beautiful Countess Olivia. "The hardest part was acting like a girl," he said.

Only one participant, Luke Padgett, had experience acting before the Shakespeare program and the audience roared when he took to the stage as the pompous Malvolio. During a question and answer session with the audience, he said he based his over-the-top character on Riff Raff from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

John Owen Neblett, a veteran of the Shakespeare program, said the acting experience has helped him learn how to deal with people and how to create a new image in the face of preconceived notions about prisoners. Acting, he said, was "freeing."

The show was freeing for the inmates in the audience as well, according to one man.

"For two hours, I'm not incarcerated," an inmate told the crowd during a post-show question and answer session. "I'm so proud of all of them."

When asked why they participated, nearly all of the actors had a different response. One said it was nice to "just play" when the rest of his life is so serious, another said that it helped him to cope with his bipolar disorder, and one said it was his way of giving back to the community — something he vowed to do to atone for taking a life 15 years ago.

For Angel Alvarez, a man sentenced to life in prison, the reason was clear. "We do this to keep our sanity," he said. "At least for me. I do it to keep my sanity."

Whatever their reasons for participating, this was just the beginning of many burgeoning acting careers.

When the inmates were asked who felt they had a future in the theater, nearly everyone raised their hands.

— Bay City News Service

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